August 2, 2018

It was a collaboration of dreams, the four hands on deck propelling this 2-day pop-up into “the stuff of legend” territory. Head Chef Halaigh Whelan-McManus of the acclaimed 3-star Michelin restaurant Maaemo in Oslo—well known for its seasonal Norwegian menu—had magically wandered into the kitchen of Dewakan; the latest addition to Kuala Lumpur’s fine dining scene. The concept of the restaurant—deconstruction of Malaysian dining and reshaping it into fashionable plates with the use of indigenous ingredients—is extraordinarily dominant, mostly due to the blank canvas of its subdued setup. Despite the dry as dust persona of its decor, the energy from the kitchen is palpable; it spilling onto the dining room and transmuting into excited whispers among guests who had gathered in orchestrated seatings of 4 or 6. I was getting the impression that perhaps my gastronomic motivation to cross the borders weren’t that berserk after all.

By 8pm, the stark dining room was filled with 50 covers. We tore house-baked warm bread with our fingers and anointed each piece with a healthy smear of salted butter, while skimming through the rustic menu, on which words like ‘Laksa’ and ‘Fårikål’ promise to deliver an exhilarating cross-cultural dining experience. 14 dishes. I confess to often being the victim of the “stuffed and restless” and the thought of navigating through a 3-hour long dinner evoked a curious sense of enervation. Good thing for wine pairings that emphatically filled the gaps between languid courses.

I’ll stop expressing my anxiety now. Instead, let the Norwegian-Malaysian team set the stage with a cold mulberry rose tea served in a hug mug, perked with the pleasures of nuttiness derived from toasted rice. It’s light and refreshing, and enlivens the fatigued palate. The Prawns in Kaduk kicks off the first of many things small and delicious. Prawns, gently cooked over charcoal are graced with tendrils of scallion flower and herbs, waiting to be wrapped snuggly in a duvet of native Kaduk leaves and whisked away into gaping mouths. The colour-licked prawns possess an innate sweetness accentuated with the hit of peppery note from the herb wrap. Fried prawn heads go down with a lick of mayonnaise and fresh chives. Sip on your restorative Chablis while you’re at it, loaded with citrus fruit and marked acidity—they make for the best sort of bedfellows.

Dewakan X Maaemo Collab dinner-Art-4

Dishes continue into the careful and refreshing realm with the Raw Snapper served with pomelo segments. Kaffir lime leaf oil running in rivulets around the pale pink mound. It’s as if the kitchen is treading lightly around the merger, afraid to make wilful progressions. That was till the Fårikål dumpling made its jaunty debut. I’ve not met a single being who would turn down the seven wonders of the dumpling world, but in that instant that I gobbled the translucent parcel in one mouth, “Why did I do that?” crossed my mind. Honestly, dreadful. It’s a travesty to refashion the national dish of Norway into a dumpling that forces one to booze up, in fear of suffocating. There was awkward silence around the table as spoons hunt for the pools of chicken mutton broth below as respite. Needless to say, I didn’t make it to the final bite.

Something to rekindle the flames: the jicama and Røros butter managed to assuage the tastebuds of my jaded dinner companions. Withstanding claims to be one of the “Best Butter in the World”, this piece of Nordic nirvana is slightly browned, turning its rich and creamy nature into something almost transcendental. The nuttiness emulating off the sauce, deeply narcotic, and a wonderful companion to the tender Mexican turnip. A mound of green silvers of pickled vegetables did help to keep the lavishness in check.

Picking up some steam lately, the cultish gluten-free grain—Job’s Tears has its unusual chewy qualities that shine a spotlight on the following dish. I’ve got to admit that I’m not too familiar with this obscure and very delicious grain, but a quick research reveals its Asian roots, which leave me feeling slightly embarrassed. Chef Halaigh first cooked it in milk and finished it in fuyu (fermented tofu) for a distinctive Chinese accent. Smoked skate and brown butter provide a welcome hit of richness and there are intriguing nudges of fruity astringency courtesy of the river of Chinese black vinegar. It’s one of those understated dishes that makes you think better of yourself for liking it.

Dewakan X Maaemo Collab dinner-Art-1

Sous vide, farm fresh eggs, are enrobed in a mushroom broth steeped with sugar kelp. I’ve no idea where they are from, but it tastes as if it lived the happiest of lives. Inspired by his Irish descent where seaweed is a pantry staple, the umami-fied pool gets the rousing approval from the clattering silverware against the bowl. Bouquets of four-angled beans and a variety of ferns reaffirm this one bowl wonder.

Dewakan X Maaemo Collab dinner-Art-3

Then comes the Squid laksa, the broth awashed with local ingredients: sour tamarind, coconut milk, galangal and lemongrass is intensely seductive. There is devotion to the offals in the offering leading up to the main plate. No, it ain’t liver, nor sweetbreads, but Sheep’s brains that challenge the palate. Recounting the meal, you could liken it to a solid marriage—it was at times orgasmic and at others deeply unpleasant. With something as knotty as brains, the trick is in nailing the threefold pleasure, the give of the brains, the crunch of the toast and the sharpness of the sauce—this rendition was far from being ‘marvellous’. The brioche was spotty in its toasty attempts, whilst a mere dressing of a few crystals of salt against the braised brain would have gone a long way. Even the pickled apples and shallots didn’t pull enough sharpness to act as the precursor to the delicate pearlescent brains.

Redemption came in the form of Kid Goat with Nordic Pickles, that put the element of fun back into the stiff starched white linen service. Fork tender kid goat, a wide array of Nordic pickles is sided by baskets of fresh baked Indian puri—you assemble them in whatever haphazard way you deem fit—this is a serious coming of age, and it’s all very good. The goat, slow roasted until it collapses on itself, charred and smoked, laminated with spice shopfuls of herbs is stupendously good. Don’t relegate the caramelised pineapple to wallflower status, these glazed slices are worth tussling over.

The meal cumulates in perhaps the most like-minded marriage I’ve been privileged to witness in this lifetime: Banana fritter and Duileasc; red seaweed harvested from the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean is revolutionised as ice cream and flanked by a mindful scattering of sour cashew nut. I loved this to death, my slight aversion to bananas speaks volumes about the dessert’s pedigree.

Dewakan X Maaemo Collab dinner-Art-2

Dewakan’s devotedness to the foraging of ingredients is further emulated in the petit fours. Temuan chocolate filled eclairs are presented alongside Woodruff Mango Tarts. The cocao pods used to make the chocolate is collected from the Orang Asliin Raub and cold fermented for 16 days to fuel the culinaire’s mad scientist antics. It’s awe-inspiring and sent me home thinking about the sustainability of my chocolate needs.

Three hours in, and we’re rolling out clutching our bellies at the plenitude of the meal. It is one of those meals that leave you mouthing pleasantries about the good stuff. But that’s what this is, a dinner for which two culinary geniuses of thoroughly different backgrounds collide, setting a new precedence. From what I’ve witnessed tonight, Dewakan is an exceptionally brave venture, attracting equally elite talents to its doors. I will be needing a much clearer picture of this, soon.